The Hardest Lesson

After our trip to the Maldives, we made our way over to India for a month of relaxation on the beaches of Goa. A few weeks in, Carly messaged a friend from a previous visit here a few years before to find out about a yoga course and he recommended she joined a community page to get the low down.


As she was scrolling through the community page she paused as she read a post. It was by a dad saying he was worried about his son who he hadn't heard from for about 2 weeks. We recognised Johnny's name, he was a passenger from one of Carly's tours a few years previously that I had jumped on for a few days but of course it wasn't him. We waited for India's shitty internet to load a photo. When it did, it was him alright so we sent his dad a message asking for any information he had. We explained how we knew him and told him we were in the same place he was last seen so we would start looking for him.


He said that an Israeli had messaged him to say that a guy he knew mentioned that he had taken a someone to a local hospital about a week ago. Apparently he hadn't been eating or drinking for a few days which could have been due to the break up with his long term girlfriend several months previously.


We jumped on our scooters and drove to the nearest city and started trawling the hospitals. We totally expected to find him sat in a hospital bed, feeling sorry for himself and we would put him on the back of a scooter and bring him back with us. We even went to a mental hospital in case he had maybe taken too much LSD, it was Goa after all. We were shocked when we had to return home that evening without him, having visited about 5 hospitals. Our minds started to wonder towards the potential darker ways this could pan out. Now we were worried.


Our next clue came from a Babba who lived under a tree in the jungle (I shit you not). Johnny's dad had also said that the Israeli who told him he was in the hospital also mentioned he'd been talking to a yogi under a tree. A few years previously when we there, a friend had told us about a Babba (a spiritual guy who usually gives up something to help reach enlightenment) who had lived under a banyan tree in the jungle behind the beach since the 1970s, about 30 minutes walk around the coast.


After a sweaty walk through the jungle, we found the babba. Sure enough, there he was, an old bearded dude, sat topless by a fire pit smoking a chillum (a pipe used to smoke hashish) in amongst the roots of this massive tree with a few disciples, I guess you'd call them. We showed them photos of our friend and their memory seemed a bit hazy at first, no doubt due to the copious amounts of hash they would smoke all day, gifts from westerners who come to smoke with him and hear his wise words. Eventually one of the guys recognised his name "ah, Johnny! He has been taken to hospital in Panjim, his passport is in a shop in Arambol. He came here for a few nights and just cried"

By now the sun had started to set and Panjim was a good hours drive away and you really don't want to be in indian roads after dark. We headed back to our place to start planning our search for the next day. A quick Google search revealed no less than 12 hospitals in Panjim. Wonderful. After a bit more research we managed to narrow that list to about 5 seeing as it wasn't likely to be in the mastectomy hospital, nor the veteran's hospital.


Now in India, nothing makes sense, like the fact one hospital was 3kms from where it was marked on Google maps, nor do hospitals have computers, so they would have to flick through an admittance book, looking for his name. Oh yeah, and staff seemingly hate to have to do anything and always made it clear how much going thru a book is putting them out.

After about 3 hospitals we headed to the medical colleges hospital, a huge place. We decided to take a different tact with this place, this time we insisted that he was there. Once again tho, buddy came back "he's not here" Carly jumped in firmly "He is here! Which ward will he be in?!" "Go look 142 and 144".

The atrium that hadnt been cleaned for years
The atrium that hadnt been cleaned for years

As we searched for the wards it became very apparent we were in a third world hospital. This was a Government funded hospital with virtually no money here for the poorest of people, in one of the worlds poorest countries. Walls were disgusting with stains of god knows what bodily fluids down them. People sleeping everywhere. Outside ward 142 was like an atrium, a weird indoor outdoor space with a green plastic roof which bathed everyone in this huge multi story space, in a horrific green light making everyone look near death. Off the sides of these walkways were what looked like streams of vomit running down the walls, although with the light it could also have been arterial blood or shit. Honest to god the building would have been condemned if it was in the UK. Fuck I hope he's not in here.

As we walked onto the ward, a huge open room with 30 beds side by side in sections of 6, a nurse came straight to us "Please come this way" Carly produced her phone to bring up Johnny's photo as we walked "We are looking for our friend, have you seen him?" She glanced at it for a fraction of a second "Yes. Come."

As we got to the end of the ward she stopped and pointed. Nothing prepared us for for what we saw. There lying in the corner was an unconscious, emaciated white guy, with his long hair covering his face. He was lying in a puddle about 2cms deep of urine, bile and vomit, shit all over his sheets. There was a thick tube coming out of his nose, dried tear marks running down his face. The vomit that was all over his face had dried and stuck his hair firm.

Carly went to move his hair to check it was his. Fuck, please don't be him. Please don't be him. She gasped, "Its him James".

The nurse seemed really annoyed with us "You must clean him! He smells! Other patients are complaining! He has been like this for days"

We asked to speak to his doctor to find out what was wrong with him. 


It wasnt good news, when he was admitted his blood oxygen levels were so low that this alone will probably have caused permanent brain damage, let alone the damage that would have been done by the overdose he was suspected to of had. He explained he had been found on a beach unconscious, and was admitted as an Unknown on the 6th November and had been in a coma ever since, it was now the 17th. He also explained that in a government hospital, all treatments and medication needed must be paid for by relatives, which meant that a blood test to found out what he had taken, wasn't carried out, which meant no antidote could have been administered, potentially saving his life and ending the situation there and then. 


It is also the responsibility of the relatives to care for the sick person. By that I mean everything, feed them, wash them, change  their sheets, these were not nurse duties like they are in the west. Because he was an Unknown with nobody to pay for treatments, nothing other than two 500ml saline drips a day had been given to him and he was only fed if another patient's relative took pity on him when the dinner came round, big pans full of what looked like watery milk.


Had we not found him, this situation would play out in one of two ways; either he woke up and walked out of there, or he would die, be cremated as an Unknown and sprinkled to the wind, erased from the face of their earth.

The disgusting bed sheets and the puddle of bodily fluid he was lying in
The disgusting bed sheets and the puddle of bodily fluid he was lying in

Seeing as he had had no treatment, wasn't fed or given a suitable amount of water for 12 days, the walking out of there option was never going to happen. He would of been dead in a week.

We said we'd pay there and then for whatever treatment or tests were needed and asked them to organise someone we could pay to clean him. We wouldn't of known where to start. We also said we wanted him transferred to a private hospital.

Now in India, everytime you take a bus or a train or book into a guesthouse, you need your passport. Unfortunately it is the law and as such, before we could have Johnny moved, we needed his passport. This was especially the case seeing as he was an Unknown in a Government hospital. Unfortunately again, the last time Johnny had contacted his dad was to say that all of his stuff had been stolen, including his passport. The doctors said they would speak to people but that we wouldn't have an answer until the morning. 

We made our way outside to make what was probably the hardest call of my life, his dad. Obviously he was delighted we had found him, but his tone quickly changed when we told him he was in a coma and was in a very bad way. I left out the extent of the state we found him in was left out.

After a quick trip to the pharmacy to buy some injections he needed, we said goodbye to a now much cleaner Johnny and reluctantly made our way home without him to start working out where the search for his passport should begin.


For some reason, from the word go, Carly was sure about which area of Arambol the passport was in, typically it was the furthest point away. Fortunately a tour leading friend of ours was also in town for a few days and we spread out and trawled the street asking in the hundreds of shops and stalls that line Arambol's main road, leading towards where Carly thought it would be. She couldn't shake the thought so she broke off and headed to where she thought it would be and work back towards us.

Sure enough, after about 20 minutes she reappeared with a serious pace in her stride "A guy said he had it but took it to the police station the other day, he had a photocopy of it in his pocket!", he was exactly where she thought it would be. Ordinarily, the police station is where you would start a search but Johnny's dad had specifically requested no police until he arrived in case he had been involved in drugs and he was worried it could make the situation worse.


I jumped on the scooter and ripped over to the cop shop. When I arrived there was a cop sat on the porch with his feet up. I explained what I was looking for and that it had been handed in recently. He just stared blankly at me "And?" "And I'd like it because my friend is in a coma and is in need of medical treatment he can't get without his passport!"

He got up and strolled into the office, sat at a desk and pulled open a drawer "No passport here, maybe somewhere else" You're fucking kidding me right? I could have slapped the prick. " IT’S HERE!! FIND IT NOW! THIS IS AN EMERGENCY!!"

"I ask my co workers, maybe you come back later"

"Phone them, NOW! Or search the other four desks, or maybe the file room I can see behind you, it's here!"

Again, he went back into the same drawer, this time removing a book "No, only one passport here, Ireland" "that's it!" " First I need to make copy, you come back later" Not a chance in hell that was happening. I snatched it from his hand "I bring a copy later"

"You bring copy later! Xerox!" he shouted behind me. Useless prick.


When we arrived at the hospital we gave them his passport so they could fill in the forms with his details and we were finally able to sign his discharge papers. His doctor recommended a private hospital down the road and kindly let me use his phone to call them. I explained he was in a coma and that we need an ambulance to transfers us. "We will be there in 15 minutes”. We tried not to get carried away with our thoughts about how great this hospital could be, it is still India after all, but at least he'd be given 24hr care.


When they arrived they were in clean, crisp blue scrubs and had a clean shiny gurney in tow, we couldn't believe it. Trying to get it into the small gap between the beds wasn't easy, especially because the guy in the bed next to Johnny was in the process of having a lumbar puncture done and had 3 men pinning him down while he let out the most spine chilling squeals. Poor bugger could only afford the procedure and not the anesthetic, so he could feel every inch of the needle being stuck into his spinal cord. This is how poor the people were in the Government hospital. Had we realised this at the time, we would've paid for it.


Once he was out if his dirty stained bed and on the nice shiny trolley he was wheeled down stairs and loaded into an ambulance and we ripped down the road, sirens an all to the hospital. As we pulled into the emergency gates, there was already a team of doctors and nurses waiting. It brought tears to our eyes, we couldn't believe the difference in treatment already. He was wheeled into triage and hooked up to a heart monitor. He was in good hands.


About an hour later, after we had filled in all the forms and had him properly admitted, we saw him being pushed down the corridor. He was being admitted into Intensive Care. Carly and I hugged as we both burst into tears. We couldn't believe it, gone from being left in the corner to die, to being admitted into ICU. He was that bad and that close to death, the relief of seeing him under full care was overwhelming. They said he would have a blood test done to find out what, if anything, he had taken but because it was so long ago, it was highly likely his body would've processed it by now, so we were tasked with trying to find out what it might have been. 


At first we suspected he might have taken some super psychedelic like ayahuasca or ibogaine rather than something recreational like coke or ecstasy seeing as he seemed to have been after a personal transformation. Our first thoughts turned back to the babba to see if he had confided in him anything he had tried, but by the time we made it back to Arambol it was already dark so a mission into the jungle wasn't really on the cards. We headed there first thing the next morning.


During the night, my mind had wandered. Why had the Babba been so cagey when we first asked him about Johnny? Why did he say he couldn’t remember him to start with, he had spent two nights under the tree with him? I started to wonder if the babba maybe had been doing an ayahuasca ceremony with him and something had gone wrong and they dragged him out of the jungle and left him on the beach so that they wouldn’t get into any trouble if he over dosed, I mean it’s Goa, people OD on all sorts all the time here, generally on the beach. It made total sense.

After a sweaty morning walk through the jungle we arrived back at the tree. I wasn’t down for taking any bullshit flakey answers this time so I cut to the chase. “Look, we’ve found him and he’s in a coma and has been for two weeks and is about to die. Did he take any drugs here with you or did he talk about taking anything while he was here. Anything you know could save his life because it’s currently looking like he has had an overdose and he needs an antidote immediately but we need to know what he’s taken first”


One of the others piped up, “No he took nothing, he was just sad. Very very sad. For two or three days he sit here and cried. No eat, no drink, just cry, cry, cry. When he come he was naked, no clothes, no bag so I give him sarong. Every night he sleep next to stream on the ground, naked and crying”


This made sense. We already new that he was probably down after a break up earlier in the year and that he had recently been robbed and lost everything which made it sound like he had had a mental breakdown. No food and no water for several days on top of continuous crying would of left him severely dehydrated with a rock bottom blood glucose level. Water is needed to transport oxygen in the blood system to the brain, and glucose is needed for energy. Combine both of these serious deficits and it’s no wonder he’s in a coma, and without actually getting anything sufficient from the government hospital hadn’t helped.

We jumped back on our scooter and rode the 1.5 hours back to the hospital and let the doctors know that it didn’t look like it was a drugs overdose. They had done some more tests during the night and and they were coming to the same conclusion as there didn’t seem to be any brain damage where you would expect in an overdose big enough to put someone in a coma. It was all just a waiting game now, hopefully some fluids and nutrients would do the trick.


We had a bit more paperwork that we had to sort but there wasn’t really anything else we could do so we headed headed back before it started to get dark. On the way back we got a text from his dad saying he had been to the Indian Embassy with someone from the Irish Consulate and they issued him a visa in three hours! He was now at the airport and was booked on a flight and would be arriving at lunch time the next day at Goa’s airport which is where we said we would meet him.


Fortunately the airport was only about 20 minutes drive from the hospital so it made meeting his dad pretty easy. After we met him and he had had a much needed cigarette, Carly jumped in a taxi with his dad and headed for the hospital giving, him a full run down of the situation and what we knew whilst i ripped over there on the scooter. From that point, there was nothing much else we could do. His dad was with him now.


The next day we got a message saying there was no point us driving all that way and to stay where we were and make the most of the beach, he’d let us know if there were any changes in his condition. The following day we got a message saying he had opened his eyes and had spoken a few words before going back to sleep. Over the next couple of days, he came around fully, was getting out of bed by himself and was taking showers and that the doctors thought he would be able to be discharged in a day or two so we went to see him.

Having been told that there was a high chance of brain damage due to the lack of oxygen, we were a bit scared to see what kind of state he was actually in. When we found his room, he was sat up in bed, cross legged chatting to his dad. We didn’t stay for long, he had had taken a sleeping pill the night before (I guess sleeping after a 2 week nap would be difficult) and was still feeling the effects now. We were so happy to see that there didn't appear to be any signs of brain damage, he was just very weak and drained. Johnny and his dad decided they were going to go and spend a few days on the beach when he was discharged so they could have some guy time before heading back home together. A happy ending.


Since then, Ive thought long and hard about this situation and it has never been too far from my mind, namely how fucking lucky he was that we were in India. When we found Johnny, he had already been in a coma in hospital for 11 days, had we not been there the earliest his dad would’ve started to really panic and begin looking into heading to India to look for him, it would probably have been another 4 or 5 days, applying for an Indian visa normally takes at least 5 days, add another 2 days to get to Goa by which point Johnny has already in a coma without any food, water, touch, care or love for 23 days, and thats just before his dad would of even made it to India to start looking through the endless hospitals! Even then it still took us 2 days to find him, and that was only because we had spent a fair amount of time in the area previously and had some pretty good local knowledge which allowed us to piece together clues. Had we not been in Goa, on the exact same beach as him, and Carly hadn’t seen a post about a missing person on a forum, he would have been in that state for a MINIMUM of 25 days, as opposed to the 11 days before we found him. Basically he would be dead. There are no two ways about it, nobody could survive being in that condition for 25 days. His father told us that since he had left home a few months previously he had lost 20kgs.

This situation has taught us some very valuable lessons that everyone should take note of for the next time you travel, ESPECIALLY to less developed countries or if you are travelling by yourself. Accidents happen, all it takes is for you to come off your scooter when you're by yourself and knock yourself out, or get hit by a falling coconut. These simple steps could have you found in a fraction of the time in a situation where every minute counts:


-ALWAYS, ALWAYS carry some form of photo ID on you at all times, not your passport though, you really don't want to be losing that. You need something with your name and your nationality, that way they can then at least try and contact your embassy and get you some help if you are unconscious. There are also plenty of websites that sell medical ID bracelets and dog tags. After nearly being stabbed in Mexico, my mum and sister sat me down and told me how much it would hurt if was I died on the road but if I just disappeared that would be a lifetime of torment for them, never knowing what had happened to me. I finally saw it from their point of view.


-Make sure you agree on contacting your parents/next of kin at least once every 7 days or so, if they haven't heard anything after 10 days, they should assume something is wrong because it is always possible these days to send a text or a message, even if it just says “I’m OK”. By setting a point when they know they should start worrying, it could save valuable days of them just wondering if you're just having too much of a good time.


-If a search is needed, you can make it a lot easier by keeping them updated on where you are staying. If you are travelling around, tell them how and when you will be getting to your next destination.


-E-mail a copy of your travel insurance to your next of kin and to your travel buddy if you have one, it's no use you having them locked safely away in your password protected hotmail account if you're unconscious!



We had none of this and the only reason we found him when we did was through a crazy set of coincidences and because of prior knowledge of the area, the odds of finding him with the tiny bit of information we had were astronomical. It still beings tears to my eyes thinking of the state we found him in and how close he was to disappearing without a trace and the lifetime of pain this would cause his family. These are simple things that we can all do which could turn a very bad situation around. I hope we can all learn from what was very nearly a tragedy. 


Stay safe folks.


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